News of the war broke while we were shooting. It was a throw back picture, a western shot in Nevada with a wide lens so the men looked taller, the horses more regal, and the landscape more imposing. Shadows marched like giants behind us.
"Gods!" The director told us. "I want to shoot you like Gods!"
Gods. That sounded just fine to me. After ten years of working in the trades, anything sounded better than getting high every morning so I could get down on my knees and cut carpet all day. At twenty-four that had been just fine. At thirty-four I couldn't go a day without hurting something. Shoulders, back, knees. I spent a night in the hospital once, waiting for a doctor to check me out. In the end he pulled out a needle about the size of one of those old school rulers and fixed what looked like a baby bottle to it. Filled up two of them with all the junk he took out of my knee.
So when the casting call came in for a tall, broad shoulder americana type, I figured why the hell not. Roles had dried up for me. I'd done a few commercials, two terrible horrors that lived in the basement of whichever streaming service had the money to throw at stuff like that, and walk on parts in a few others not worth remembering, let alone mentioning.
Casting director once told me, "If you'd been born fifty years earlier, you'd have been the next Robert Redford." I don't know what he hoped to accomplish with that. Lift my spirits, maybe? Thing about Hollywood people is, they weren't great at thinking things through. For all the romantic talk about being part of storytelling and connecting with people, they had about the same of insight into human beings as a rubber spoon.
When news broke about the war, the director called us all together and gave us a big speech. Not exactly rah-rah, but he seemed to take it seriously which I appreciated. He ended by saying if we wanted to take a day we could, and if we wanted off the movie then he'd understand. Who the hell wanted to work on a movie that might never get finished on account of total human annihilation?
Me, apparently. A few others stuck it out as well. Mostly the actors. I don't think that says anything about actors in general. We're no more or less noble than anyone else. But when your entire life is centered on being in movies, well, giving that up feels about as equal to total annihilation as you get, so we kept going.
I don't remember when I found out the truth of the war. Strange. Talk to most people and they say they could tell you the very second they found. What they were doing, what clothes they were wearing, how their breath smelled. Down to the most minute of details, everyone to a person can tell you where they were when they found out the initial news of "war" had been a way to let us down easy. War, the logic went, was understandable. A conceivable notion that most people--well most Americans anyway--were well-acquainted with. They could almost reach out and touch the concept of war. That's how real it was.
Aliens on the other hand. That was something else. For all the movies we put out, nothing could truly prepare people for that.
They had disguised themselves. What originally had been reported as a meteor approaching Earth turned out to be a sort of scout vessel. I don't know why, but that scared me more than finding out they were real to begin with. Something about it. The tactical nature of it drove home the realization that they weren't just aliens, but truly intelligent life. I get sick thinking about it even now.
The cast and crew all but disbanded after that. I do remember the cellphones. We were in the middle of a scene. Couldn't tell you which one. It was outside and hot, but that's Nevada for you. I remember the little beeps and Cam losing his mind. He shouted into his loudspeaker that he always carried with him, but by then those who were left had learned to deal with his outbursts. They had gotten worse with each passing day. Crew members quitting. News of the war building like a held breath; a dear friend submerged in water, each second drawing out like a millennia.
Catherine ran up to me. That's who told me first, I think. I can see her face now. Sallow, but her eyes are red. Or maybe that was from a scene we had done together. She played a widow who had lost her family in a Camanche raid. In her desperation she had given herself over to whoring. She played the part beautifully. Like she'd been born into a Townes Van Zandt song.
She couldn't speak. Instead she held up her phone. At first I thought it was a joke, or a lie that she had fallen for. But Catherine was a smart lady. Serious. My brain nearly tore itself in half trying to make sense of it.
In the end I ended up yelling at her. Can't remember exactly what I said, but it made those red eyes wet and sent her running. I'm sure someone there wanted to say something, but the news had leveled everyone. Ken, one of the cameramen, ran off behind one of the trailers and vomited for what must have been an hour straight. Cam sat in his little director's chair staring a hole through the sand. Don't know if it was because aliens were real or he realized that the movie was never going to get made.
I let him ponder both and went looking for Cat.
By the time I'd found her she had all but recovered. That was the thing about her, she could be hurt so badly you'd think she'd fold in on herself and disappear into a ball of dust. Then the next she'd be sitting on a stool, legs crossed, her hair thrown back in that old Hollywood style, a joint burning between her fingers.
"You enjoy hurting people?" She didn't look at me when she said it.